CHAPTER X / The Details and the Whole in the Qur’anic Picture

The Details and the Whole in the Qur’anic Picture

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Let us now suppose that the man who has given us the Qur’an could have been able to predict with perfect accuracy all future events,

important and trivial, that would take place through the remainder of his own life.

Let us further imagine that he was also able to determine what teachings of the Qur’an would be needed to address these future events.

The question to be asked here is: how could he have known the literary design that these teachings would take?

How could he have predicted which teachings would go with which parts and passages,

so as to be ready to receive each part as it is revealed and give it its appropriate and firm link that fits it most perfectly in its pre-assigned slot?

How come that when each passage was revealed it found itself in its most suitable position, perfectly comfortable with its adjoining parts.

The space assigned to it is neither too narrow to give a laboured impression, nor too loose to weaken its links with the rest. It fits in like the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

There was never a need to make even the slightest change, or rearrangement, or to delete or add even a particle in the preceding passage to allow the new one to slot in.

Indeed, how could that man have known each part and to what unit or group it belonged?

How could he have known at what position in that unit it would be placed, well before he became aware of the other parts of the unit?

How is it that when the separate parts given at random are all set in their respective positions, assigned to them in advance,

the curtain is raised and we see every surah like a beauty queen, perfectly moulded, tastefully adorned?

What elaborate design, what perfect forethought, and what faultless knowledge that never forgets,

hesitates or errs, has prepared for such a broad assortment of material its perfect design, and directed each piece of it to its assigned slot?

How come that when each has taken its place according to the advance design,

the result is a necklace in which each gemstone is perfectly placed so as to add to the superb beauty of the necklace while losing nothing of its own attraction.

We all know that human knowledge always looks at what it has completed and says:

‘If I were to begin anew, I would have changed this plan for that, or started with this idea instead of that’.

Such knowledge simply cannot produce a perfect design in advance of the events to which it applies.

This, in itself, is an irrefutable proof that the Qur’an is made by no human being.

Its author is the One whose knowledge is perfect, absolute and independent of time.

“Had [the Qur’an] issued from any but God, they would surely have found in it many an inner contradiction.”

(4: 82.)

We need now to provide a proof of what we have stated, and give an example of the unity of each surah, despite all factors that should have militated against such unity.

We will show how a single surah revealed in parts over a long period of time becomes like a chain of ideas with one ring leading to the next in an easily flowing system in which words,

sentences and verses are inseparably welded. The best example to give is the longest surah in the Qur’an,

with the broadest variety of meaning and purpose, expressed in the largest number of passages and revealed over the longest period of time.

This is the second surah of the Qur’an, comprising 286 verses, constituting,

according to the occasions of its revelation, more than 80 passages, revealed over a period of nine years.

It mentions the change of the direction we face in Prayer, i.e the qiblah,

and the order to fast in the month of Ramadhan, and comments on the first military clash in the history of Islam.

All these were revealed early in the second year after the Prophet’s settlement in Madinah.

It also contains the last verse ever to be revealed of the Qur’an:

“Fear the day when you shall all return to God, when every soul shall be repaid in full for what it has earned, and none shall be wronged.”

(2: 281.)

It is not our purpose here to point out the verbal and mental linkages that join the parts of this surah.

That is a detailed study, better suited for a full commentary on the Qur’an.

Yet it is possible to outline in a single part of the surah links and bonds stretched out in all directions,

related to close and distant parts and forming a network of connective threads that leave us wondering which to follow first, and which is meant to provide the first bond.

What we propose to do instead is to look at the whole surah in a systematic way tracing how it proceeds from start to finish and highlighting the unity of its overall semantic structure.

This will show us how every ring is tied in its right position in that long chain.

However, before we embark on our plan we should say that such a study as we will be undertaking should be the first step in a careful review of the Qur’anic structure and arrangement.

A detailed study of the links found at the beginning and within verses and passages should only be undertaken after one has looked at the whole surah,

determined its parts and identified its purposes.

This will undoubtedly make it easier to look at the finer details, which provide a better clarity of purpose. Scholars of old have made this very clear.

In the words of al-Shāṭibi:

“Many and numerous may be the issues addressed in a surah. It remains, nevertheless, a single whole linking its beginning with its end, having an overall objective to which all its parts relate in the same way as sentences expressing a single idea are interrelated Anyone who wishes to study the structure of a surah must begin by looking at it as a single whole, just as they must look at the whole idea before considering its details.”.

This shows how mistaken students of the Qur’an are when they look at the detailed links between two or more adjacent issues,

without considering the overall system that applies to the whole surah. Such a partial look will only deflect a person off his purpose.

It will screen from him the most beautiful aspects of the construction.

Such a person is like one who is shown a piece of fine and elaborate embroidery to admire,

but he decides to look at its threads and details, one at a time, without lifting his eyes once to cast an overall look at the whole piece.

He finds a white thread next to a black one, joining other threads of widely different colours without appropriate matching or contrast.

Thus, he concludes that it is defective.

Had he stretched his sight further to contemplate its design and the picture it gives,

he would have noticed coherence between its constituent parts that would elude him when looking only at single elements.

He will realise that each colour in each group relates to, or contrasts with, another in a different group.

If he then looks at the garment as a whole, taking into view its outer and middle parts, he will appreciate the harmony and elaborate design that has gone into it.

He will then begin to appreciate its exceptional beauty.

This is, indeed, how we should look at the Qur’an if we want to appreciate the order of arrangement each surah follows.

Page VI

The Wrong Way to Look for Harmony

Before we embark on our study of the longest surah of the Qur’an as an example of the perfect unity of each surah...